Bombing may strain U.N. future in Iraq

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations went into post-war Iraq with more trepidation than usual -- there was little security, the United States waged a war without U.N. backing and relations with Washington were at an all-time low.

The strains led the U.N. Security Council to authorize a loosely defined mission which was forced to work with the U.S.-led occupation. The cooperation and a dependence on U.S. security may have compromised U.N. neutrality, many suggested.

But Tuesday's bombing, which took the lives of at least 20 U.N. staff members, may have cost the organization even more. For the first time, U.N. employees, willing to brave war and disease to help the world's needy, demanded the United Nations leave Iraq and spoke angrily about having gone there in the first place.

In a statement, the U.N. Staff Council's security committee called on Secretary-General Kofi Annan "to suspend all operations in Iraq and withdraw its staff until such time as measures can be taken to improve security."

Both the Security Council and Annan said in statements that the United Nations would be undeterred by the violence. But U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard acknowledged the organization would need to rethink the kind of risks staff members were facing in Iraq.

Eckhard emphasized that U.N. security was the responsibility of the United States, noting "we are entirely in their hands."

U.N. staff demanded an investigation into "why adequate security was not in place to prevent such a horrifying attack."

But U.N. officials in Iraq, trying to maintain an image of neutrality which has long allowed them to operate in some of the most hostile environments, deliberately decided to forgo tighter security measures which the U.S. military could have provided.

"We are unarmed. We don't have a lot of security, as this bomb shows," the U.N. spokesman in Baghdad, Salim Lone, told CNN. "We don't want a lot of security, because we're here to help the people of Iraq."

Many at U.N. headquarters were against the Iraq war from the beginning and have become embittered with the United States for limiting the U.N.'s role in post-war Iraq.

The ill-defined U.N. mission in Iraq was authorized to improve the humanitarian situation and assist in reconstruction. The mission's chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was to coordinate with U.S. authorities and Iraqis. Vieira de Mello, who was hosting a meeting in his office when a suicide truck bomb exploded outside the compound, was killed.

Hailed as a possible future leader for the organization, his loss comes at a time when U.N. morale is low. Longstanding relations between key global players that were damaged by pre-war diplomatic wrangling have not fully recovered.

On Tuesday, many lamented the loss of one of the organization's most precious assets -- immunity in hotspots like the Arab world.

"The U.N. was sent in to pick up the pieces of the invasion," said Maggda Moyano, a visibly shaken American woman who worked at the U.N. development agency. "They wanted to go it alone and here we are paying a price."

U.N. officials said they couldn't remember such a devastating and deliberate terrorist attack that killed a senior official and others.

But humanitarian workers and peacekeepers have been in harms way for as long as the organization has operated.

In it's early post-World War II days, a U.N. high commissioner sent to Palestine to negotiate between Jews and Arabs was killed in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. Blue-helmeted peacekeepers in Bosnia, the Middle East and Sierra Leone have been targeted, kidnapped and killed in the line of duty.

In 1996, an Israeli offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon left 91 refugees dead when Israel struck a U.N. compound where the refugees had taken shelter.

The United Nations said it knew of no direct threat against its Baghdad operation or the 600 international staff working there. Officials struggled to make sense of an attack against a mainly humanitarian operation whose goal is to end the U.S. presence in Iraq.

"We've been on record expressing concern about the overall security situation in Iraq from the beginning," Eckhard said. "But at the same time, we felt that the situation was safe enough for us to send a large U.N. contingent."

The U.N. staff association said Tuesday's attack was a "tragic reminder of the innumerable risks undertaken daily by United Nations staff across the globe."

Associated Press writer Michael Casey at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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